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Solis Prepares to Take Another Step Up

Politics: The rising El Monte Democrat heads to Congress, backed by a determined family and a power base of Latinos and labor.

December 28, 2000|JEAN MERL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most Saturdays in the late 1970s, college student Hilda Solis would take her younger sisters to study with her in the library at Cal Poly Pomona. When they pulled away from the family's La Puente home in her aging Volkswagen Beetle, their devoutly Catholic mother would make the sign of the cross.

As the little forest green car shuddered and struggled up steep Kellogg Hill en route to the campus, the young passengers wondered whether they would make it.

They always did. And, as most members of the large, close-knit family prepare to go to Washington for Hilda Solis' swearing-in as a member of the House of Representatives on Jan. 3, one sister finds a lot of symbolism in those determined, uphill trips of her childhood.

"We learned that, no matter what, even with roadblocks, with the support of your family, you can make it," Leticia Solis said.

Few would question that Hilda Solis, 43, born to immigrant parents and raised in one of the increasingly Latino suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley, has made it.

More than a year ago the Democratic second-term state senator from El Monte--the first Latina elected to the state Legislature's upper house--surprised political insiders by challenging an 18-year House incumbent from her own party, Rep. Matthew G. "Marty" Martinez of Monterey Park.

Some sharply criticized her, charging that she was attacking a colleague to save her own career. (Because of term limits, she would have had to leave the Senate in 2002.) Only one sitting House Democrat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove, backed her in the primary, catching flak for doing so.

"I had butterflies. I'm a very cautious person," Solis said about the months she took to reach her decision to challenge Martinez.

But Solis won support from most of organized labor, a national women's fund-raising network, many local elected officials and community activists who believed that Martinez had become lazy on the job and neglected the district. Solis trounced him 62% to 29% in the March primary.

Last month, no Republican bothered to run in the strongly Democratic 31st Congressional District, a largely blue-collar area that stretches from East Los Angeles to Irwindale and Azusa and in which Latinos account for about half the voters and Asians Americans another 20%. Facing three little-known third-party candidates, Solis won the seat with 79% of the vote.

Even before she caught national party leaders' attention by taking on Martinez, Solis had been making her mark as part of the new and growing generation of Latino elected officials who are reshaping Southern California's political landscape.

Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said Solis' recent House election cemented her reputation as one who is "willing to push the envelope."

As a state legislator--she won an Assembly seat in 1992 and two years later moved to the Senate-- the affable, unpretentious Solis was known for tenaciously pushing a liberal agenda. She has championed labor causes, women's rights (especially in the area of domestic violence), and education and health care issues, sometimes irritating Republicans who consider her a captive of the labor lobby.

Most noticed nationally has been her environmental activism, which she said was formed partly by childhood memories of the stench from the La Puente landfill. Her environmental efforts brought Solis this year's annual Profiles in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in May. She became the first woman to win the honor, now in its 11th year.

The award led to a cover story in George--the magazine co-founded by the late John F. Kennedy Jr.--a mention in People magazine and an appearance with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg on NBC's "Today" show.

Solis donated the $25,000 award to environmental groups but caused a brief stir in Sacramento by asking to keep the $10,000 silver lantern that came with the honor. The California Fair Political Practices Commission, after some debate, ruled that her accepting it would not violate the state's conflict-of-interest laws.

"She's going to be a national star," said Art Torres, head of the California Democratic Party.

Solis once interned in Torres' office when he was a state senator, and the two share a role model, United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. Like Huerta, Torres said, Solis "has heart. . . . She is one of the most grounded people I know."

In contrast, on primary election night, a bitter Martinez called Solis "obnoxious," and he soon after switched to the Republican Party. (Martinez declined, through an aide, to be interviewed for this article.)

Keeping the Same Field Offices

Solis has spent much of the last few weeks saying goodbye to her Sacramento staff and interviewing people for her office in Washington. She has decided to keep the same field offices, in El Monte and East Los Angeles, to provide continuity for constituents.

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